Hidy ho, fellow amateur mixologists. It’s time for another edition of Liquor Nerd, the column carefully slapped together to help bring out your inner Salvatore Calabrese. Which is another way of saying there’s no reason to sell yourself short by serving up Screwdrivers, gin-and-tonics, and Old Milwaukee Beertinis when bartending at your next dinner party.
Right now you might be feeling a little bitter about British Columbia flattening the COVID-19 curve more effectively than other Canadian provinces. Why? That’s easy. For most of this spring you’ve been working at home, meaning that every day has been business-pyjamas casual day and a shower has been something taken once a week whether you need it or not. Suddenly, there’s a possibility you’ll be forced back into the office and—assuming you’re not living a real-life version of Mad Men—happy hour will no longer start at 3:01 p.m.
That makes this week a good one to talk bitters, the origins of which date back to when the Egyptians were building pyramids and perfecting the art of mummification. According to obscure yet reliable sources—a.k.a. Wikipedia—it wasn’t uncommon for the mixologists of ancient Egypt to infuse wines with medicinal herbs.
Flash forward a few centuries, and three years after Philadelphia’s Farmer’s Cabinet periodical was the first to make mention of a “cocktail”, the Columbian Repository suggested in 1806 that a cocktail was a “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”. While that doesn’t sound much like a description of a Squashed Strawberry Alley Cat or a Chocolate Choo-Choo, it certainly works as a catch-all for a Manhattan or a Barbados Rum Punch.
The modern incarnation of bitters—which were originally touted as a cure for everything from snake bites to dandruff—can be traced back to the Venezuelan city of Angostura. In 1824, German-born doctor Johann Siegert was serving as surgeon general to the armies of Simón Bolívar when he came up with a medical elixir for the troops. By 1850 the Siegert family was exporting what became known as Angostura aromatic bitters around the world, and the concoction was turning into a staple of the cocktail culture that was taking root.
So what are bitters? For a basic description, think of a mix of different roots, spices, and bark that is added in small quantities (i.e. a flick-of-the-wrist dash) as a complex flavour booster to mixed drinks. And that caveat of “basic description” is important, because today bitters are a full-blown cottage industry, with companies like Seattle’s Scrappy’s Bitters and the Vancouver-spawned Bittered Sling limited only by the power of their imagination. Bitters are now based on everything from lime, orange, and cherry to celery, habanero, and black walnut. And don’t stop there; from cardamom and lavender to rhubarb and black fig, there’s a bitter waiting for you.
Next question is about what exactly bitters bring to a cocktail. In a 2018 interview with the Straight, Bittered Sling cofounder Jonathan Chovancek suggested they be treated like a seasoning—in other words, something to be used sparingly.
“It’s almost like when you add salt to a dish or lemon juice to a fish,” Chovancek said. “You’re not making lemon fish—you’re making the fish taste more of itself by adding that acid to it. So with cocktail bitters, you’re really bringing out the dynamics of your carefully chosen ingredients that you’ve put in your cocktail. The spice build in the bitters is going to help enhance and steer that palate experience in the glass.”
To the uninitiated, bitters can seem expensive; even though you only use a dash or three in most recipes, it can be hard to wrap your head around $20-plus for a 120-millilitre bottle from a boutique company. So why not experiment a bit before plunging into a huge and wonderful world? There’s a reason an affordable workhorse like Angostura has been around for almost two centuries: namely, a couple of inexpensive dashes take things to an entirely different level.
Try the below spin on a Barbados Rum Punch, where bitters really make all the difference.
2 oz. Mount Gay rum
2 oz. passion-fruit or guava juice (Ceres-brand is best)
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Pour into a shaker over ice, shake, and pour into a tall glass over fresh ice. Garnish with nutmeg.
Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.